After C.S. lewis decorated my back garden last week, Paris seems rather drab. We arrived yesterday to a grey and miserable city, cloaked in a wet blanket of cloud; despite the travel nightmare which was last week in London, I began to long for the crunchy snow again. Still we are in Paris, its raining-but its lunchtime. So we head off to Chez Michel, an old haunt which my group of friends and I return to year after year. If you were to open a chain of French bistros in London and wanted every cliché in the book to make it feel suitably French, then you could do worse than copy the style of this place. It has a small menu and a killer set lunch served on small simple tables, the house wine is far better than most things you’ll find in a British restaurant. The walls are covered in old yellow prints of Paris, none of which hang straight and the the service is surly but efficient. Best of all, you can eat like a King for 30 Euros. Although in these times of apologetic bankers that doesn’t get as far as it did, its still pretty cheap. So, after depositing our luggage in the Hotel Terminus Nord we trudged to Chez Michel in the pouring rain and I began to imagine my onion soup steaming in front of me. Imagine the look of horror, dear reader, when we turned the corner and, sacre bleu, the sign said Fermé! Not a regular fermé though, it was a fermé final. The end of an era. The tables were stacked up and a pile of tablecloths lay unwashed in the corner. I don’t like to blame the financial services industry for spoiling my lunch in Paris, but it was raining, I was tired, so I did.
We did end up having a nice lunch in the end, so all was not lost, but all too quickly we were on the bus to Salle Pleyel for the rehearsal. In case you didn’t know, we are here playing Beethoven with Sir John Eliot Gardiner who I shall now refer to as JEG, time is pressing. If any of you have been to the concerts you’ll know how different the London Symphony Orchestra (LSO) sounds with him on the box. I’ll be honest with you, its been a steep learning curve with JEG and the LSO over the last few years. Our first attempt at Beethoven was taxing as we were used to playing it in a particular way, lots of vibrato, plush sound and with a degree of reverence normally reserved for religious figures. JEG came along and blew all of that out of the water, he insisted that I play with no vibrato at all (although he does let me sneak in a tiny amount these days), and if he heard the slightest wobble in rehearsal, he would quite happily bellow across the room “Stop vibrating Gareth!” Thats not something thats been shouted at me very often. As well as the wobbling , the strings were asked to play starting with their bow on the string to change the sound of the attack, and the sforzandi are punched out like a championship boxer. Its all very hard work, but the results, for me at least were like a revelation. Beethoven 5, that most abused of pieces, is churned out more regularly than Only Fools and Horses at Christmas, and yet with JEG it becomes a revolutionary piece of music once again. Its like he’s taken a very dusty old painting that everybody is used to looking at and quite comfortable with, and blown the dust off to reveal details which had been forgotten about. Take for example the last movement, the piccolo makes its first entrance having sat for half an hour waiting. Normally you can’t hear its chirpy little runs, but JEG has thinned down the textures from a heavyweight to flyweight and Sharon zips through the orchestra like Ricky Hatton. Now that the sound is leaner, when there is a fortissimo or punchy accent, they really have a huge impact.
JEG gave a little speech in London about his feelings on the famous opening motif and its revolutionary content, you know the one. Da da da daaaaah. After being woken up by the tune on a mobile phone by commuting bankers (sorry guys) for years, I’d quite happily never play it again. However, the other night it was one of the most exciting things I’ve done with the orchestra for a while, and I suddenly realised what an extraordinary piece of music it is. Paris was no exception. JEG gave a speech again, in fluent French, and as he pointed out, they like a bit of revolution in France.
I feel exhausted after these concerts, they really are incredibly hard work, plus I have an ear infection and can’t really hear anything out of my left ear, which is just as well as Emanuel is coughing his lungs up and sniffing a lot. What a pair we are, his face buried in a hanky and me with a finger permanently stuck in my ear hoping that this prod will be the one that lets me hear again. I hope we make it through to the end of the tour.
As I said, its very tiring playing like this and we have had a very long day so we are very grateful when we get back to the hotel. Most people go straight to bed. Actually, some people go straight to bed. Maybe. I am persuaded to go to the restaurant under the hotel however. Its a cathartic experience really, and we go some way to laying the ghosts of Chez Michel to rest. Its got the same table cloths, the same surly service, even the same menu. As I tucked into my onion soup, I realised that after my second glass of Cote du Rhone, all of these bistros look the same anyway. We come back to Paris in May. I hope the credit crisis doesn’t deepen further, as unlike Chez Michel, this restaurant is right underneath the hotel. I didn’t even get wet.